Why the changing climate doesn’t necessitate a changed diet

Vivien Sweet

At this point, nearly everyone has seen the headlines: Australia is ablaze, Indonesia is underwater, and Antarctica is melting. Though it may seem as if we, as Americans, are far removed from those environmental disasters, two Saturdays ago, the temperature reached a high of 68 degrees Fahrenheit—over 30 degrees above an average January weekend in New York as recorded over the years.
There is no doubt that something is terribly wrong with the state of the global climate. As my sister constantly reminds me, we have fewer than ten years left before the earth becomes 1.5 degrees warmer. Although that increase may seem marginal on paper, such a rise in temperature will set off a series of chain crises: sea levels would soar and flood coastal cities, over a billion individuals would be exposed to extreme heat waves, the Arctic would be ice-free, and millions of animals would lose their natural habitats.
As the new decade rolled around, I promised myself that I would do my part in attempting to reverse climate change. (Or, rather, hold it off for a couple more decades, since the demise of the natural earth and its forests, clean water supply, and glaciers seems to be reaching the point of inevitability.) What I figured was the simplest and most effective way to do so was to become a vegan. Since I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over a year now in order to reduce my carbon footprint—as the process of manufacturing meat releases more tons of carbon dioxide than it does to grow produce—officially cutting all animal products out of my diet was the next logical step.
But what I quickly realized was that switching to a vegan lifestyle was not the glamorous choice plastered all over Instagram. Though, yes, I missed fried eggs and goat cheese dearly, and tofu was becoming a tiresome sole source of protein, a more glaring problem with my new diet quickly presented itself: eating vegan was so, so expensive.
Take avocados for example. Although the production of the fruit has doubled in Mexico over the past three years, making the country the world’s leading supplier, the price per kilogram of avocados is currently equivalent to the daily minimum wage in Mexico, $3.91, according to The Independent author Emma Henderson. Ironically, the locals for whom this is a staple crop can hardly afford to purchase the very food they produce.
The case of overwhelming demand for an organic product in a region is not an anomaly, however. The price of quinoa, for example, has reached $6.50 per kilogram—surpassing the price of a kilogram of chicken. In the Andes, where quinoa originates from, the grain has become too expensive for the local people to buy, causing average quinoa consumption in the area to drop in 2014, Henderson wrote.
The fact of the matter is this: eating sustainably is a privilege, not a moral obligation to save the planet. In low-income metropolitan neighborhoods, it is simply not affordable for individuals to buy organic food or even to seek local produce options since farmers’ markets are not usually located near these communities. In neighborhoods that are afflicted by what have been dubbed “food droughts,” a sandwich from a bodega is a much more cost-effective option than an açaí bowl from Whole Foods.
In light of the brutal reality of veganism, my vegan days—all two of them—ended just as quickly as they began. Though I have retained an affection for oat milk lattes, what I’ve come to realize is that wanting to stop climate change doesn’t necessitate a huge lifestyle change. Instead, I’ve opted to take the path of climate activism. Whether it’s through joining environmental advocacy groups such as Zero Hour and the Sunrise Movement that directly propose legislation to remedy the climate crisis, like my sister has, or just striking with Greta Thunberg’s movement Fridays For Future, stopping major companies from emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide is the first step in reversing climate change.
Ultimately, just 100 companies have been responsible for 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a study conducted by the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2017. Though the individual sacrifice of animal products in the name of stopping climate change may sound noble, it takes an army, not a village, to overthrow the gas-guzzling companies at the root of the environmental crisis. The avocado toast can wait; it’s time to be on the front line of the climate strikes for a foreseeable future.